This is a good time to be a drinker in America. Not only have microbreweries elevated beer to new levels, but we are taking more interest in cocktails than ever before. On almost all spirits fronts, we are going back in time to create interesting libations using superior products--the way they used to. Step into any respected bar and you'll see that saccharine wine coolers and drinks with schticky names like "red-headed slut" have been replaced by real, classic cocktails using fresh ingredients made by people who know what they're doing. Which is why it's important to be able to recreate a well-made cocktail in your home bar now more than ever.
During a trip to San Diego a few weeks ago I stumbled across Noble Experiment, a speakeasy that could qualify as the coolest bar in America. Hidden behind a fake wall of kegs in the back of a Gaslamp Quarter bar, this gem makes you feel like you've been inducted into a secret club as you enter--and the only way to get reservations is through text or email. And once you do get in, you're greeted with a wall of faux skulls on the left and decor that could belong in the the world's happiest haunted house. And not to mention some of the greatest cocktails ever created. [Editor's Note: I had, hands down, the best cocktail I have ever had in my life during my longer-than-planned evening at Noble Experiment. I'll post the recipe for it later this week.]
So who better to give us a lesson in home bar stocking? We talked to Brian Lee, manager of Noble Experiment to get the 10 items everyone needs in their home bar. Take it away, Brian.
1. Rye Whiskey
Rye whiskey was the chosen whiskey of Americans for many years; lately its corn-based brother Bourbon is king. Rye whiskey can provide spiciness that bourbon can only dream of. Noble Experiment uses Rittenhouse 100 and Whistle Pig Rye Whiskies – both have the high proof and flavor to pack a punch in an Old-Fashioned or Manhattan.
Gin comes in many varieties, not just the piney London Dry Style we have all have become accustomed to. Cucumber heavy gins like Hendrick's have shifted gin from your grandfather's favorite sipper to something very approachable and mixable. In many cases, a nice light gin like Plymouth can nearly eliminate the need for vodka. In the most basic sense, gin is flavored vodka - a high-proof neutral spirit is infused with flavored botanicals. One of Noble Experiment's favorite gins is the Terroir Gin from the St. George distillery in Alameda, California. Using local botanicals from the area surrounding the distillery, the handcrafted gin is earthy, unique, and makes a serious Martini.
Mezcal, tequila's older and smokier brother, is a personal favorite. Fruity and often very smoky, mezcal puts a different spin on the agave-based spirits that we have all sworn against at some point. Del Maguey makes some delicious single-village mezcals: the same way locals have been doing it for generations. Sip it at a BBQ with some chicken or mix it with a touch of honey and fresh lime as a great companion for a late night California Burrito.
4. High-quality, Versatile Liqueur
The French and Italians have been making these for hundreds of years, and for good reason. Cointreau, Maraschino, and Chartreuse are all good options, but I personally like Benedictine. At 80 proof, is it strong enough to drink straight, sweet enough to mix a small amount into an old-fashioned, and packs enough flavor to use a modifier in light, citrusy cocktail. In the same vein, Italian amaros are a popular choice among experienced bartenders. Lower proof and bitter (amaro means bitter in Italian), these can be used in cocktails but are often sipped straight. A favorite at Noble Experiment is Cynar, which is sourced from artichokes.
5. A Good Vermouth
Vermouth often gets a bad rap, and for no good reason. Unfortunately, your average, neighborhood bar will stock cheap vermouth that sits on a warm back bar for several months. What most do not realize is that like a fine red wine, vermouth had a finite lifespan once opened. With that being said, a good bar or cocktail can completely change your perception of this fortified wine. A high quality Italian style (or sweet) vermouth like Carpano Antica is fantastic in a classic Manhattan but just as delicious straight up or on ice...as long as it's kept refrigerated. Recently, I bought a bottle to make Manhattans at home, but ended up drinking the entire bottle straight up.
Bitters varieties are growing at an astounding pace. Once only an ingredient in old-fashioned and Manhattan cocktails, flavored bitters like Bitterman's Xocolatl Mole Bitters or Rx Bitters Co.'s Sarsaparilla bitters are opening up many fun, flavorful possibilities. Having said that, you can never go wrong with classic Angostura Bitters: they have been produced for nearly 200 years, were used medicinally, and are mandatory in several classic cocktail recipes. Used in small amounts, the cooking spices found in Angostura bitters help round out the edges of the cocktail, allowing the varied ingredients to work together a bit better. I put them in nearly everything I drink myself.
When consistency is key, jiggers are a must. I personally like the one that OXO offers, as it has many different measurement lines to eliminate the need for 12 different jiggers for those complicated Tiki cocktails.
8. Don't Go Cheap On Ice
A large majority of our manpower at Noble Experiment is spent on quality ice. Having one or two large cubes, as opposed to smaller cubes with more overall surface area, slows dilution while still chilling your drink. Instead or using our laborious process of cutting ice by hand, use King Cube ice trays from Tovolo. They can be used in almost any glass for any cocktail. Make sure you are using filtered water – you wouldn't want to add any unnecessary flavors from tap water into your quality cocktail!
9. Fresh Squeezed Juice
Fresh juice is essential. Take the time to juice a fresh lemon or lime per cocktail – you won't be disappointed.
10. A Handy Reference Guide
A cocktail book that provides all the necessary details with no extra frills: Dave Stolte's Home Bar Basics gives readers cocktail history, recipes, and even tool descriptions. A must have.
If you ever find yourself in San Diego, be sure to check out Noble Experiment. But shoot them a text or email in advance as it's hard to get in.